William Beutler on Wikipedia

Johann Hari and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Wikipedia Edits

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on September 15, 2011 at 12:04 pm by William Beutler

Unless you follow the media, and more specifically the British media, you may be wholly unaware that there is such a person named Johann Hari, or that he has been a wunderkind columnist and correspondent, or that a lot of people find him kind of insufferable, and in that case you almost certainly don’t know that he got himself in a big heap of trouble this summer, over charges of plagiarism and meddling with Wikipedia.

Understandably, most of the criticism has been focused on the plagiarism charges. After all, that’s a crime against journalism, and by definition journalists are the ones writing about it most widely. What he did in those cases was not remotely OK, but at the moment I’m a little more animated by his improper Wikipedia activity. After all, that’s a crime against Wikipedia, and by definition The Wikipedian blogs about Wikipedia.

The matter is news again today because Hari has published a public apology in the pages of The Independent, his employer. He is sorry for everything he has done, he’s returning his prestigious Orwell Prize (which he probably was going to lose anyway) and he’s taking a sabbatical to go back to journalism school. I guess it’s a start.

About the Wikipedia controversy, Hari devotes just one full paragraph:

The other thing I did wrong was that several years ago I started to notice some things I didn’t like in the Wikipedia entry about me, so I took them out. To do that, I created a user-name that wasn’t my own. Using that user-name, I continued to edit my own Wikipedia entry and some other people’s too. I took out nasty passages about people I admire – like Polly Toynbee, George Monbiot, Deborah Orr and Yasmin Alibhai-Brown. I factually corrected some other entries about other people. But in a few instances, I edited the entries of people I had clashed with in ways that were juvenile or malicious: I called one of them anti-Semitic and homophobic, and the other a drunk. I am mortified to have done this, because it breaches the most basic ethical rule: don’t do to others what you don’t want them to do to you. I apologise to the latter group unreservedly and totally.

Hari’s Wikipedia article contains this brief account:

Several journalists, including Cristina Odone in The Daily Telegraph and Nick Cohen in The Spectator, concluded that a Wikipedia editor, ‘David r from meth productions’, who claimed to be ‘David Rose’, were in fact made by Hari. Writing in The Daily Telegraph, Odone noted that, after she had fallen out with Hari, Rose began making misleading edits to her Wikipedia article accusing her of anti-Semitism and homophobia. Nick Cohen said that misleading edits were made to his own Wikipedia article by the same editor after he had published criticism of Hari’s work. … The Times leader writer Oliver Kamm later attributed to ‘David Rose’ a change in his Wikipedia biography that he regarded as “merely an unsubstantiated judgement” but which had been made not long after a “spat” with Hari.

I am not one who believes, as a general rule, that someone should never edit their own Wikipedia article. Indeed, I’m kind of the expert on how to do it and not bring grief to yourself. But by his own admission, Hari’s editing of his own page amounts to what Wikipedia informally calls whitewashing. Hari also did not disclose that he was behind the “David r from meth productions” account, which is also, obviously, a problem. And it’s all the worse—and by worse I just mean “embarrassing”—if you’ve read any of his surreptitiously self-serving arguments in the archives of his Talk page.

But embarrassment is the bare minimum of regret Hari should feel about his “juvenile and malicious” edits to Wikipedia articles about his media adversaries. This is the part that really gets me. Others may disagree, but I see a vast gulf between sneakily trying to make yourself look better and sneakily making others look worse. And I think there’s a big difference between being an anonymous Internet critic—although it’s a type known to take things too far—and using the veil of anonymity (or in the case of Wikipedia, pseudonymity) to smear a person’s reputation.

Calling someone a “douchebag” is rude, and you may be wrong, but that’s your opinion. Calling someone a “drunk” is a specific charge of bad behavior, about which one is either right (and maybe still an asshole) or wrong, and that’s unforgivable. I don’t know which is the case, but either reflects very poorly on his character. This is the one thing that I think no apology, leave of absence, or media training, can fix.

Update: In the comments, a reader points out that Hari’s edits are even worse than I’ve described them, and he’s right. He points to apparent sustained anonymous vindictiveness on Hari’s part, and I add that Hari’s self-support included some rather absurd sock puppetry, neither of which I was aware of at the time I first wrote this. Had I the time, I would follow this up in more detail. But the upshot remains the same: as a public figure, Hari may or may not be finished—but as a respectable one, he certainly is.

  1. I think it is even worse than you state. It wasn’t just inserting defamatory content (which though inexcusable is perhaps understandable in a “got home a bit pissed and decided to edit an article on someone he didn’t like” way), but the long term nature of his ‘work’. With Christina Odone he was edit warring to say that she had been fired. Her husband tried to rectify it (and was upfront about who he was), but was told he wasn’t allowed to because he was connected with her (oh the irony). It was only after 3 months of ‘david r’ bickering, an RfC, and her husband saying that the Catholic Herald would confirm that she wasn’t fired did that matter drop. But it didn’t stop there. He then used IPs to insert even worse such as this beauty http://bit.ly/o6UJ2Y

    To be honest, I’m amazed more isn’t being made of this.

  2. You are completely right. I dashed off that blog post rather quickly, and only later returned to look at the Hari edits more closely. Later that afternoon, a friend started reading through the Talk archive I link above, and found possibly the most absurdly complex (and poorly disguised) sock puppetry on behalf of himself either of us have ever seen. And what you point to now is entirely news to me, although not terribly surprising. I agree, it’s a little surprising that more hasn’t been made.

    However, having witnessed no shortage of editing controversies involving public figures over time, it’s actually rather par for the course. It points to just how esoteric Wikipedia is, even for investigative journalists and policy wonks and even, believe it or not, Wikipedia-focused bloggers.

    It’s commonly noted that it’s difficult to piece together conversations that occur on Twitter, but it’s far more difficult (and far less frequently noted) how it is a real chore to piece together stories about what happens on Wikipedia. If it was easier, I’d probably even post more, and it probably wouldn’t be such a niche.

  3. It is interesting to note that the people who really busted Hari on this are people who are completely on his side politically, rather than the political opponents he deeply annoyed. Because doing the wrong thing is doing the wrong thing.

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